WINNIPEG - After the team finished with 40 wins, and nine more points in the standings than in the previous season, the Winnipeg Jets showed signs of improvement during the 2016-17 season.
But missing the playoffs means there is more work to do. Head coach Paul Maurice and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff didn't shy away from that fact during their end-of-season press conferences today.
For the second straight season, the Jets opened with four rookies in the line-up. Each one earning that coveted roster spot with his play in camp. That will be the first thing to change next season though, according to Maurice.
"I don't see four rookies making our team again at the start of the year," he said. "Two years ago I think we were at about 500 or so games played with players under 25. Last year it was around 780, and this year we're over 900."
Video: 2016-17 Year in Review
Those 900 games were second only to the Carolina Hurricanes, and over 100 games clear of third place on that list.
That means the young players in the organization have gained experience the hard way. But what it also means, is that with a summer of training and growing, Maurice is optimistic about the future.
"We'll be better. We'll be better in all areas," he said. "It will be incremental. We have areas that we have to improve that aren't going to come easily. We'll get better."
Three of the team's top four point producers are 24-and-under. Mark Scheifele led the way with 82 points, Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine each had 64. As a group, the Jets were seventh in the NHL in goals for (248) and seventh in goals-per-game (3.00).
On the flip side though, the 255 goals allowed (the fourth most in the NHL), hindered the team's ability to come out on top some nights.
There lies the challenge, says Maurice.
"How do we develop defensive games in offensive players? That's the challenge you're faced with with this group," he said. "We like some of how we score goals. We have to improve and change offensively in terms of how often we generate that offense. It leads to challenges for us defensively."
Video: YEAR END | Paul Maurice
The challenges defensively some nights made things difficult for Connor Hellebuyck at times, said Maurice. Hellebuyck, in his first full NHL season finished with 26 wins, but like every player on the roster, faced his share of adversity this season.
Hellebuyck's .907 save percentage was 36th best in the NHL among goaltenders with at least 30 games played. But his four shutouts had him tied for 10th in the league with five other netminders.
The biggest lesson the NCAA's inaugural Mike Richter Award winner learned this season in Maurice's eyes was the hardest those goaltenders ahead of him on those lists had to learn.
"He's going to learn to fight now, learn how to compete a little harder. That might be the most important piece that young players need to learn - fight through an 82-game schedule - and how to grind through that.
"To get to be great, those guys pass through it. They go through it, they have their tough nights, they get pulled. They have to fight for their confidence on their own. He had to do all of that this year. I saw a lot of progress in his game. He's got a lot of room to keep getting better, which is true of all these kids.
"I believe in him. I believe in his talent level and his compete level that he's going to continue to get better."
That belief runs from behind the bench right into the general manager's office.
"Every veteran goaltender has gone through these trials and tribulations in their career," said Cheveldayoff. "In order to stay in the league those veterans have learned how to get better."
Cheveldayoff says the team's dressing room provides numerous examples of young players drafted by the organization that came in, and put the work in to be better. He cited Scheifele as an example, who has increased his point production from 34 in 2013-14 to averaging more than a point-per-game this season.
"Mark Scheifele invested in himself. He went from that 18-year-old kid, to the 19-year-old kid, to the 20-year-old young man, to the 21-year-old man, to the 22-23-year-old driver of this team," said Cheveldayoff. "It's taken him to do that. The credit goes to him. The credit goes to Jacob Trouba for what he's done. These guys have talent, the coaches are here to help guide them, but in the end the players deserves all the credit."
Players like Scheifele and Trouba, along with Adam Lowry are set to take another step in their careers next season. Maurice believes they 'graduate' from being referred to as 'young players' in 2017-18.
All three hit career-highs in points this season. All three are becoming a bigger piece of the core of the team.
"They've made huge improvements over those years in a short period of time to become drivers," said Maurice. "As we add more drivers internally, there will come a time when you're not wasting years, you're hitting your stride."
Video: YEAR END | Kevin Cheveldayoff
Those drivers aren't far off. Laine led the team in goals with 36, Ehlers' offensive production jumped by 26 points over his rookie campaign.
The youth, joined with established veterans like captain Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien, Bryan Little, and others, is a recipe Cheveldayoff and management has put the time in to prepare.
"When we took over, we were clamoring to be able to have young players that we could look at and say we want to build this franchise with. That has taken time," said Cheveldayoff. "As we have seen, the wait is definitely worth it... If you're looking for the greater goal of trying to achieve something, you want to build a core, you want to build it so it's as big as you possibly can with like ages, like personalities - people that are driven toward the common goal of the organization."
After this summer's Expansion and NHL Drafts, the next steps toward that organizational goal begin when the first puck hits the ice in camp.
"We will have far fewer players that will be going through this for the first time," said Maurice. "Where your team makes that jump is when they believe in that room, and their expectations on themselves are stronger and harder. I expect improvement in our team."